Staghorn ferns are exotic and easy to grow plants


August 28, 2003


Victoria County Master Gardener


The most interesting and exotic looking plant in my garden is surprisingly the easiest to grow. Staghorn ferns have been around since prehistoric times. I have been growing them for considerably less time.


Staghorn ferns, properly called platyceiums, are members of the fern family called polypodiaceae. These ferns are valued for their peculiar growing habits and distinct look. Staghorns thrive as epiphytes, attaching to tree branches or a growing medium such as sphagnum moss. Epiphytes are plants that do not normally root in the soil but instead grow upon another living plant while remaining independent of it except for support, so they are different from a parasite. This fern, as well as other epiphytes, manufactures its own food in the same way that other green plants do, but obtains its moisture from the air or from moisture-laden pockets of the host plant, rather than from the soil.


The fern produces two kinds of fronds (or leaves), the sterile or basal fronds and the fertile or foliar fronds. The basal fronds form the shield or base over the growing medium, support the plant and collect organic material and moisture. They are pale green when first developing and age to a tan or brown color. As the fern multiplies on a wire-hanging basket or other support, the shield- like fronds can cover the entire surface.


Growing out of the flat basal fronds are long green foliar fronds. These are elongated, narrow, forked and resemble a deer's antlers - thus the name staghorn. Both basal and foliar fronds are covered with very minute silvery hairs that give protection from insects and aid in water conservation.


On the underside of the foliar fronds are rust-colored patches that contain the fern's spores. Staghorns are propagated by spores, although this is difficult to accomplish by an amateur grower. The easiest method of propagation is separating the small offsets or pups. A plant that has been multiplying on a growing surface for several years can be separated by cutting around a basal frond and removing the entire basal and foliar pair of fronds. These offsets can then be attached to a plaque, a hanging basket, or a tree branch.


Although slow growing, these ferns can get quite large with fronds up to 3 feet long or longer. A friend recently saw staghorns at a botanical garden in Florida that were more than 50 years old and were so huge that she looked tiny standing next to them. I have been growing staghorns for more than 20 years, and my original hanging basket is more than 5 feet tall, even though I have separated it many times.


It does not need excessive watering. Letting the growing medium dry out between watering is a good rule of thumb. Being natives of tropical countries, staghorn ferns love humidity and moderate temperature. I have grown them in pots indoors, but they really do better outside in partial shade. They are susceptible to freeze; yet, this year I just covered a particularly big, heavy one with blankets, and it survived a freezing night.


I seldom fertilize my staghorns because the basal fronds produce their own nutrients. Experts, however, recommend a light solution of fish emulsion or a water-soluble fertilizer with a 1:1:1 ratio.


Having an unusual plant like a staghorn fern has been an interesting education and also has been fun to grow. In the future, I hope to begin collecting more varieties of the fern. Some varieties are more difficult to find and cultivate, so this might be something of a challenge. I hope you try staghorn ferns. They are a great way to add interest to your garden landscape.